An air raid killed at least four people, including two children, in the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the head of a hospital said.
The federal government denied the allegations saying the air force only targeted military sites and accused Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces of staging civilian deaths.
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Tigray Television, controlled by the regional authorities, said the attack in Mekelle happened at around 09:40 GMT on Friday and blamed it on the federal government. No other military aircraft are known to operate in Ethiopian airspace.
Federal government spokesperson Legesse Tulu and military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane did not respond to queries regarding the air raid, which happened days after fighting resumed between the national government and Tigray forces on the border of the Tigray and Amhara regions.
Kibrom Gebreselassie, chief executive of Ayder Hospital, said the bombing hit a children’s playground. It was not immediately clear if there were any military facilities nearby.
Tigray Television quoted witnesses saying a kindergarten called Red Kids Paradise in the Tigrayan capital was struck in the attack. It aired graphic images of children and adults with dismembered bodies filmed in the aftermath on the ground being attended by medical personnel.
Homes near the kindergarten also were hit in the strike, broadcaster Dimtsi Weyane reported.
Tigrayan officials called the air strike “a heartless, sadistic” assault.
“This vicious regime has outdone itself with today’s deliberate targeting of a children’s building,” they said in a statement.
A humanitarian source in the city confirmed hearing an explosion and anti-aircraft gunfire.
‘Fake body bags’
Kibrom said on Twitter the hospital received four dead from the air raid, two of them children, and nine others were admitted with wounds.
“More casualties are arriving. The total number so far in our hospital is 13,” he said.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the comments.
Both sides have blamed each other for breaking a four-month-old ceasefire between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF, the group that controls Tigray.
“Civilians are dead and injured” and a rescue operation was under way, said Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a TPLF spokesman, after Friday’s air raid.
Ethiopia’s Government Communications Service in a statement said the government will “take action targeting the military forces that are the source of the anti-peace sentiment of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front”.
“The Ethiopian Air Force is clearly reversing the attack launched against Ethiopia by targeting only military sites,” the Government Communication Service said.
“However, the terrorist TPLF has begun dumping fake body bags in civilian areas in order to claim that the Air Force attacked civilians.”
Stephane Djarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said he could not confirm the reports of civilian deaths from air strikes.
“It’s a very concerning development… This is a good opportunity to reaffirm the secretary general’s call for a cessation of hostilities,” Djarric told reporters.
Famine and millions displaced
Etana Habte Dinka, from James Madison University, said since federal forces withdrew from Tigray months ago the region has been under siege with food, fuel, and other goods being prevented from entering.
“The most important thing is about the timing. It’s important to know why this war resumed right now. The Addis Ababa government must have known that Tigrayan forces are at their weakest point. The organisation and relaunch of war is important,” he told Al Jazeera.
War erupted in Tigray in November 2020 and spread to the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara a year ago. Last November, Tigrayan forces marched towards Addis Ababa, but were driven back by a government offensive that month.
A ceasefire was announced in March after both sides fought to a bloody impasse and the government declared a humanitarian truce, allowing badly needed food aid into the region.
The fighting has displaced millions of people, pushed parts of Tigray into famine conditions and killed thousands of civilians.
The vast majority of residents of Tigray have had no access to telephone or internet service for more than a year.
The return to combat has alarmed the international community, which has been pushing both sides to peacefully resolve the brutal 21-month war in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Since the end of June, Abiy’s government and the rebels have repeatedly stated their willingness to enter peace negotiations, but disagreed on the terms of such talks. In recent weeks, too, they have accused each other of preparing for a return to battle.